Voices in Education

Duncan’s Message for Year 2: Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
Declaring, “We must educate our way to a new economy,” Arne Duncan came to his alma mater last week and clicked off the tasks for his second year as secretary of education. During his speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Duncan also addressed some of the more controversial aspects of his first year, including support for merit pay, charter schools, and competitive grants.

Duncan said his first year in Washington, D.C., was “an amazing one …. We were lucky enough to walk in and have our budget double.” Also on the positive side of the ledger: an emerging consensus on national standards—only a short time ago considered a “third rail” in education—and the collapse of legal “firewalls” between test scores and teacher evaluations—symbols, he said, “that great teaching doesn’t matter.”

Still on Duncan’s to-do list:
  • Addressing the nation’s 27 percent high school dropout rate and stanching the flow of 1.2 million students “leaving for the streets” annually.
  • Boosting the U.S. college graduation rate, which has “flatlined” at 40 percent, behind many other countries. The goal: to have the world’s highest college graduation rate by 2020.
  • Closing the “opportunity gap” by increasing access for poor children to high quality preschool and to “great teaching”; reversing alarming signs that young students believe college is too expensive; and overhauling federal loan repayment programs.
Duncan also sought to set the record straight in answers to questions from faculty, students, and other guests.
  • On competitive grants: These will go not to states with the “best PowerPoints” but to those with “demonstrated results.” Title I monies will continue to be formula-based, but competition is necessary to break the status quo—including at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Instead of doing “sixty things,” the DOE will focus grant funds on six areas. “I challenge everyone to move outside their comfort zone,” he said. “I think what folks haven’t understood is how much opportunity is out there.”
  • On merit pay: Prior programs failed because they were “done to, not with, teachers,” and were not based on student growth. “We’ve been scared to talk about excellence,” he said. “We’re going to shine the light on excellence.” He also seeks a shift in the laws to recognize “highly effective” rather than “highly qualified” teachers.
  • On his statements in support of teacher firings at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island: He meant to “applaud the courage” of the district leaders to do things differently, he said. “No one wants to fire teachers,” but the country has been “too silent” about schools with dropout rates of 50 percent or more, he added. “No one was talking about that school the other day.”
  • On charter schools: “A first-grader doesn’t know if they are going to a charter or not …. We should be replicating good charters and good district [schools] and closing bad charters and bad districts.”
  • On resegregation of schools: “We’re seeing resegregation. We see it going the wrong way,” he said. “Very soon, we’re going to lay out what we’re going to do.”
  • On encouraging parent involvement: “We’re still struggling with this,” he said. One of the things teens, especially, are asking for the most is more time with their parents, he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
What are your suggestions for the education secretary as he heads into his second year?

About the Author: Nancy Walser is assistant editor of the Harvard Education Letter and the author of The Essential School Board Book.